Friday, 21 November 2008

... Central America: In Search of the Rebel Base Camp

At 4am this morning I still hadn't been to bed since I got out of one in Copán at 6am the previous day. At 4am this morning I was riding in a minivan headed for Guatemala International Airport to catch a short flight to Santa Elena International Airport, which serves the city of Flores, for the final leg of my Central American Adventure. I was in search of the mother of all Maya ruins amidst a jungle canopy. I was in search of the rebel base camp on Yavin 4! I was in search of the wonder that is Tikal. Sleep was not important at this point.

The flight to Flores took less than an hour. I was met by the tour group that I would be spending the day with and with a bus full we drove for about an hour to reach the entrance to the national park, still another 17km south of the ruins. As we drove along the road, we headed deeper & deeper into the jungle amongst the weird & wonderful sounds of brightly coloured parrots & toucans and the 'roar' of the howler monkeys.

The national park encompasses 550 sq. km and contains thousands of structures. Many of them have still to be excavated & uncovered of their dense blanket of rainforest that has grown over them. The central area of the city occupied approx. 16 sq. km and is believed to have had more than 4000 structures. To walk all the major building complexes (lets face it, even for me 4000 are a bit much) one must walk at least 10km. I was glad I was wearing a). comfortable shoes and b). lots of mozzie repellant!

Exploration of the site was done with an English-speaking guide for our small group that consisted of a Canadian, an American family - one of whom was born in Guatemala and myself. As we followed the signs to reach the great plaza, we walked with spider monkeys swinging in the trees and weird coloured turkeys running around us on the ground. Gigantic Ceiba trees towered over us. It was pretty magical.

The path began to widen and the Temple of the Grand Jaguar (Temple I), built for King Moon Double Comb aka Lord Chocolate (I kid you not), came into view. If I was left speechless by Copán then here I would possibly have some far worse infliction occur. The view was... I really am stuck for words here (rare, I know!) and so hope that that alone gives you an indication of the 'wow factor' here? Since two people have stumbled to their deaths (silly buggers, what did they have to go and do that for?), the stairs up Temple I have been closed. But I wasn't fretting for long because my thigh burning workout was still going to happen courtesy of Temple II that was just across the way. A precarious climb up some very ricketty wooden staircases and I was stood admiring the views from Temple II, which was once almost as high as Temple I but is now at a still impressive 38 metres.

As well as the two towers, I spent a good hour & a half exploring the rest of the Great Plaza, the North Acropolis, the Central Acropolis and the West Plaza running up & down lots of huge stone steps. The West Plaza is home to Temple III, 55 meters high, which still has to be uncovered. This allows for you to see a temple the way the first explorers found them. That in itself was really quite cool.

From the West Plaza there is the causeway that leads to Temple IV, the big daddy of the site! At 64 metres, it is Tikal's highest building and is believed to have been completed in the reign of the King's son. A series of steep wooden steps & ladders took me to the top. The views were quite simply breathtaking!

It is still not entirely understood why Tikal's greatness waned as part of the mysterious general collapse of lowland Maya civilization. But as I sit here with my thighs that feel like they're on fire (that'll teach me for running up steps that were built for Maya with long legs!) I can safely say that, whilst the civilization may have collapsed, Tikal certainly hasn't lost any of it's greatness. I spent almost 6 hours there and felt like it STILL wasn't enough!

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